Blasted beasts: horse trekking to Song Kul lake

Three frustrating beasts, one massive lake, and a lot of gorgeous steppe: our tale (tail?) of a Kyrgyz horse trek. Head to the end of the post for information on how to independently arrange a horse trek to Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan.

“A cat can make you look clumsy, and a dog can make you look stupid, but only a horse can make you look both at the same time.”

Gregory David Roberts

 

After five minutes on this horse, I know this will be awful.

Dark (like his soul) and bristly (like his personality), he knows I am but a tourist in Kyrgyzstan, and thus decided there is no need to listen to any of my commands.

Or move, for that matter.

I, however, have other plans. Over the next few days, Sebastiaan and I are to ride through the mountainous steppe to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s largest freshwater lake. Sitting at over 3,000 meters high, and stretching for 29 kilometers, the remote lake is a summer home to many a nomadic family who come to graze their flocks on the lake’s grassy shores. It’s one of the things to do in Kyrgyzstan.

The plan is to ride from the village of Kyzart, through the 2,664 meter high Kyzart pass, to one of the family-run yurt camps on the lake’s shores.

Kyzart, a good starting point to independently arrange a horse trek to Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Kyzart, Kyrgyzstan, the starting point of our sluggish venture.

All I need to do now is make the horse move… easier said than done.

Nudging it with my heels proves futile, so I give it a firm series of kicks, to no avail. A thrust of the hips, a technique recalled from bygone years of riding, causes him to snort with irritation and step backwards.

Time to try vocals: “Chuu! Chuu!” The common cry of Kyrgyz horsemen gets me a salty stare from the corner of the horse’s eye. When paired with a slap on the bum, his ears turn back and down—a sign that I’m sitting on one pissy pony.

Should I ask for a whip? All Kyrgyz horsemen carry one, and they certainly aren’t afraid to use them. The moment of consideration passes quickly—whipping is brutal, and at home I was taught a good rider never needs to use a whip. I will find my own way to master this blasted beast.

After minutes trying various combinations of shouting and thrusting, our Kyrgyz guide rides up behind my horse and gives it a massive smack with his whip. With a start, we’re trotting. I give the horse another nudge with my heels to increase the pace, and he stubbornly slows to a walk.

Sigh. At least we’re moving.

On the road to Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

For six hours, we ride through golden, rolling hills, zig-zag through stony outcrops in Kyzart pass, and cross over peaks overlooking the vast waters of Song Kul.

Mountains near Kyzart pass in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Nomads, conquerors, and Silk Road merchants alike have traversed these hills in past millennia, and it’s easy to believe that nothing has changed since. There are no paved roads, no power lines. Only blue sky, grazing animals, and the occasional yurt.

Sheep on the road near Song Kul lake in Kyrygzstan - Lost With Purpose

Traffic jam!

Grazing animals near Song Kul lake in Kyrygzstan - Lost With Purpose

… not that I care. My horse hasn’t moved faster than a walk since the initial burst of trotting, and often refuses to move at all. I’ve spent the last hours staring at the speck-sized backs of Sebastiaan and our guide from a kilometer away.

All I want to do is ride this god-forsaken horse to the glue factory.

The sun begins to set as we (finally) reach the yurt camp, and it is time to part ways with our horses. I give mine the obligatory pat on the neck, thanking him for his [lack of] service. Being a crafty horse, he detects my lack of sincerity, and walks off in reply. Bastard.

Heading to Kyrgyzstan? Make sure to check out our backpacking in Kyrgyzstan budget report!

Sunset over a yurt camp at Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Home sweet yurt camp, home sweet [email protected]#!$ing-horse.

The sun setting behind a horse at Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

The milky way and a shooting star over Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

On the bright side: bright nights!

The next morning begins in much the same way–going nowhere.

A local man clambers onto the saddle behind me, attempting to show me the proper Kyrgyz way to ride. The horse is grouchy about the extra weight, but his stubbornness is eventually worn away by the extra 80 kilos of loudly roaring, hard kicking, whip-cracking Kyrgyz man. I sit in front of the man like a demure bride riding away on her wedding night, completely useless as he magically manages to make the horse gallop around the camp.

The horse begins to heave from shuttling around two people at once, so the man clambers off, taking his whip with him. He tells me to try again, but the horse is no fool–I am light, soft-voiced, and most importantly, whipless. Despite my throaty attempts at a Kyrgyz manvoice, we go nowhere, and I must resort to being herded through the steppe by our guide.

Horse definitely NOT moving at Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Me: Let’s go? Horse: Bitch please.

We lope along the lake and ride through the jailoos, alpine pastures. Our journey is punctuated by stops at yurts to curdle our bellies with kyzmyz, fermented horse milk, the Kyrgyz nomad’s drink of choice.

Drinking kyzmyz at Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Alcoholic sour milk and bumpy riding make for a great combination, by the way. /sarcasm

As the horse plods on, I while away the hours explaining to him the different ways I will to cook him when the trek is over, down to the spices I would use on his roasted flanks (cumin, coriander and some dried chilies).

In the afternoon, everything changes. In a moment of desperate creativity, I remove the lead rope from Sebastiaan’s horse and tie it to my horse’s bridle. A meter of rope hangs from my hand, dangling against the horse’s side, not unlike the whips that the men use on their horses.

It feels like that moment when Harry Potter finally finds his first wand. Magic is about to go down.

The horse’s ears are suddenly attentive and alert. Gone is his give-no-fucks attitude–he is watching, waiting to see what I do next. With a few circular swings and a tap of the rope on his withers, we are, to my amazement, trotting.

For the first time in this trek, riding is actually fun. When I want to walk, the horse walks. When it’s time to trot, with a twirl of the rope, he starts to move. I’m finally riding neck and neck with my companions, rather than trailing a kilometer behind.

Horse guide riding through the steppe at Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

An exciting moment: seeing a part of the horse that is NOT its bum.

We crest a hill and come onto a flat, grassy plateau. It’s all too perfect: the sun is just breaking through the clouds, and the grass is catching the sun’s rays just so. There are no people, no animals, no rocks or trees or streams blocking our path. It’s just us, the horses, and the wide open world.

Riding through some golden sun rays at Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

What more could you need?

I bring the horse to a speedy trot. Rope in hand, I flick it back and forth over his sides, and attempt my best Kyrgyz mancry. “Chuu! Chuu damn you!”

And we gallop.

Hooves thunder beneath me, and rushing winds whip my hair around my face. I stand in my stirrups, laughing in exhilaration and relief, while the horse stretches his neck out to gallop faster. For once, we’re working together, not fighting. For once, we’re both enjoying ourselves. We gallop across the plain, racing forward until we’re finally forced to stop and catch our breaths. This is what I imagined when I pictured horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan.

A Kyrgyz horseman riding around at Song Kul lake - Lost With Purpose

As the day winds down, we alternate between walking and galloping back to camp. With each interlude between gallops, my mind muses.

Kyrgyzstan is a land of nomads, a land of horsemen. People have been taming and riding horses here for at least 2,000 years, and it is said that Kyrgyz people can ride before they can walk.

I, on the other hand, have only ridden horses extensively in America, usually within the confines of a ring, according to strict Western riding etiquette. Refusing to use a whip was applying Western expectations to a Kyrgyz horse. Who was I to think that was the “right” way, that my way was better than methods deeply ingrained in Kyrgyz culture for thousands of years?

Alex riding a horse in Kyzart pass in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

It’s something that we Western travelers do much more often than we realize. Countries are viewed through our Western lens, and we judge people’s lives and cultures based on our standards, rather than their own. We like to tell others how they should want to dress, the way women should act, the way families should be raised. We think of ourselves as saviors, forgetting that the people we’re scrutinizing have survived this long on their own. I can cite my English riding history all I want—that doesn’t mean it works the same out here in the wild Kyrgyz steppe.

A father and son riding horses in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Upon our return, before releasing the horse to graze, I rub him on the neck.

“Just so you know, I kind of like you. And I promise I won’t cook you in a stew.”

For once, he doesn’t snort back at me. He sighs contentedly, enjoying the attention for a moment before moving on to graze in the evening light.

 

Panorama of Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan - Lost With Purpose

Song Kul is calling!

Want to independently arrange a horse trek to Song Kul lake?

It’s quite easy to independently arrange your own horse trek to Song Kul, sans expensive tour company.

Location

Head to either Kochkor or Kyzart, Kyrgyzstan. Marshrutkas from Bishkek to Chaek pass by Kyzart—just tell the driver where you’re going so he knows where to drop you off. The drop-off point is at a gate about half a kilometer from the town. Walk down the road and into town, then ask people where you can find horses. Bring a picture of a horse, or say “loshadi”, horse in Russian.

Prices (per day)

  • Horse: 600 som / $8.75 / €7.80
  • Guide: 1000 som + 600 som for his horse – we think this was B.S. but couldn’t argue our way out of it. Try to avoid paying for your guide’s horse, we can assure you he already has one…
  • Yurt: 700 per person including (very stale) breakfast
  • Food: 1,200 per person for dinner and lunch at the yurt camp. In our opinion it’s expensive for what you get, so try to stock up on supplies ahead of time. Beware, Kyzart is lacking in shopping options.
  • Total cost for two people for a three-day trek: 12,000 som / $174 / €156

 

A disastrous horse trek with a happy ending. Read on to learn how to save money by independently arranging a horse trek to Song Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan.

 

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

19 thoughts on “Blasted beasts: horse trekking to Song Kul lake

    Stephanie Rose says:

    What an exciting adventure!! This was such a great story. I am so glad you shared this experience. Seems like a tale from a faraway land.

    Thanks. We’re glad you liked it. The lake does feel like it’s in another world .

    What an awesome adventure!! Love the way you write, it really makes us want to ride through the Kyrgyz steppes on one of those horses.We’ll try to find one not so stubborn 😉

    Haha we met mant people who’s horses were the opposite of ours, they wouldn’t stop. We think you guys would really like Kyrgyzstan, although it seems Georgia is treating you very well. Cheers!

    Nathan Lowe says:

    Yeah, there are really a lot of variation to how well trained the horses are. Part of the challenge is that Kyrgyz riders can be really rough with their horses so the humane light touches us westerners try to coax them with are sometimes not enough to get them to behave as we want them to! I love the experiences you shared of learning to ride like a Kyrgyz and your starry nighttime sky pic is a gem. I’m slowly learning my way with obstinate horses after half a dozen trips to lake Song Kul. Kyrgyz-Travel offers nice Song Kul Trips with English translation to Lake Song Kul and in the region around Naryn.

    Hi, thanks for your comment. Hope you’ll find your way with the horses. Cheers.

    I visited Lake Song Kul… but the horse trek was something I definitely missed out on!! Sounds like one hell of an experience though – maybe next time? :p

    If you’re in the neighborhood, why not? Do try your horse out, though 😉

    Wow, despite the poorly behaved horse, this sounds pretty amazing! Do you have to have experience riding horses to do a trip like this?

    Sebastiaan says:

    No experience is required. I was 5 when I last rode a horse, and still I survived 😉

    jenn says:

    that’s really cool and the scenery looks just amazing~ and good to know that it need no skii or experience.
    me and my brother are traveling to Kyrgyzstan around July.
    do you have any recommended tour agency or guide? if we want to do the three days tour as well?
    thank you so much!

    Sebastiaan says:

    Yeah, I was especially happy no experience was required. The last time I rode a horse, I was still a cute little boy.

    We’re not sure about travel agencies. You can ask at Apple Hostel in Bishkek. Igol, the manager, has a lot of contacts. We just showed up in Kyzart, and arranged things from there. You can also check out http://www.caravanistan.com. They are experts when it comes to this region, and probably have plenty or recommendations.

    Have a great time in Kyrgyzstan! It’s a gorgeous country, so we’re sure you will.

    Taeyoung Kong says:

    These are really really cool pictures XD. Thank you for sharing them.
    I have a plan to travel to Kyrgyzstan in this Sep. and your page is very helpful.
    Whenever I read your posts and look at your pictures, they make me can’t wait for the time that I can be there, see every places in pictures, and feel everything around me in person.

    Sebastiaan says:

    That’s so nice to hear. Glad our photography makes you feel that way. Cheers and have fun!

    Archie Moberly says:

    This looks so ridiculously stunning! I’m heading to this area myself in a few weeks but going solo – would this be something to do, do you reckon?

    Eric says:

    Does this horse trek look like this?
    Day 1: Kyzart to Son Kul
    Day 2: Son Kul
    Day 3: Son Kul to Kyzart
    Trying to figure out the logistics as I plan to go there in a few days! Great pics by the way!

    Floris Meert says:

    Want to do the same trip with 3 friends!
    But is there any risk that there are no horses/guides available when you arrive in kochkor/Kyzart?

    My friends want to book a tour in advance…

    Regards and great story!

    Talant says:

    Nice article.
    I wish you could do a horse trek called Truly Nomadic Land in the Alay Mountains.

    Link has been removed because it was irrelevant – moderator

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